John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Health Care Poker

Posted on December 17, 2009

Playing Health Care Poker

President Obama was a canny poker player when he served in the Illinois State Senate.  His poker skill seems to have deserted him, though, in his efforts to pass health care reform in this session of Congress.   Having played a few hands of poker myself, I recognize some of the mistakes that the President and his team have made.  I have made many of them myself.  Here are a few of them.

Overplaying Your Hand:  Sometimes when your first two cards are a pair of tens, it may make sense to bet big.  But sometimes those tens don’t amount to much.  The President thinks he got a huge mandate to take the country to the left, and he overplayed the cards he was dealt.  He misread what the country wanted from his leadership.  The American people didn’t want to pay higher taxes and risk their health care quality in order to fix the problem of the uninsured.  The President thought he had all the cards and kept pushing up the stakes in an effort to win the pot.  But he overplayed his hand, and now his whole agenda is in real trouble.

Waiting for the Inside Straight:  Let’s say you have a 10, Jack, King and Ace.  The prudent better wouldn’t put all of their money on a pulling a queen on the last card, because frankly, the odds weren’t that great.  But that is exactly what the Obama Administration has tried to do with the Senate.  Instead of coming up with a bipartisan plan that could have attracted 70 votes or going with a reconciliation strategy that would have required only 50 votes, the President’s team came up with a strategy that required they come up with 60 votes.  This is the same thing as waiting for an inside straight.  Which makes the queen – in the case of the example above – or Joe Lieberman/Ben Nelson in the Senate example, the most important card in the deck.  The problem for the President is that neither Joe Lieberman nor Ben Nelson is an inanimate playing cards.  They are politicians who are currently feeling the heat from their constituents or their conscience.  That makes pulling the inside straight even harder for Team Obama.

Falling In Love with Your Cards:  Let’s say your first two cards are two aces.  Then, let’s say your next two cards are two kings.  Pretty good hand, huh?  So, you keep betting that those four cards are guaranteed to propel you to victory.  You fall in love with your cards, even though there is a very real possibility that your opponent might have three of a kind or a straight or a flush.  That is pretty much what the Democrats did with the public option.  They loved that public option.  They kept pointing to its popularity in the polls.  They put all of their rhetorical firepower behind it.  But no matter how much they loved the idea, it was never going to win in the Senate.    They fell in love with their cards, but they didn’t have the winning hand.

Going All In With Weak Cards:  One of the biggest sins in poker is not understanding how your opponents might react when you decide to put all of your chips in the pot, especially if you have weak cards.  Going all in with a weak hand, when it is very likely that you will be called is just plain stupid.  Well, the President and his team did exactly that with the health care debate.  They went all in with the expectation that Republicans would just cave and give them what they wanted.  But the Democratic health care hand was not nearly as strong as they thought it was.  It cost a lot of money when the American people were worried about deficit spending.  It didn’t do much for premiums (in fact it increased premium costs) when that was the number one concern of most Americans.  It sharply raised taxes when the voters were in no mood for higher taxes.  And it relied on a huge government presence, when most Americans have lost faith with an inefficient and increasingly incompetent federal government.  Despite all of these signs, which Republicans picked up on while Democrats ignored, the White House decided to put all of their eggs in the health care basket.  They went all in with a weak hand, and the GOP called their bluff.

Neither Barack Obama nor Harry Reid has played their cards all that well in this high-stakes health care poker game.  They still might win a small hand at the end of the day, but the damage to their political fortunes is already evident.  As Kenny Rogers once sang, you got to know when to hold them and know when too fold them.  It might be time for the Democrats to fold on this health care hand, and wait for a new deal next year.

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